Long Arm of the Law

dir. Johnny Mak

TIFF Cinematheque - Retrospective

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Director Johnny Mak's super-tough, giddily amoral heist thriller laid the groundwork for the "heroic bloodshed" films of Ringo Lam and John Woo, which would soon make Hong Kong action cinema into an international phenomenon.

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Introducing a note of giddily amoral brutality into the previously moralistic Hong Kong gangster genre, Johnny Mak's socio-political time bomb was wildly successful and widely influential, laying the groundwork for the "heroic bloodshed" films of Ringo Lam and John Woo that would soon make Hong Kong action cinema into an international phenomenon. Arriving in Hong Kong to pull off a jewel robbery, a Mainland gang of former Red Guards is forced to go underground when the heist goes south. Tension with their Hong Kong allies, and within the gang itself, soon leads to explosive violence, until the authorities put a fittingly nasty and brutish end to their rampage. Featuring exceptionally choreographed shootout setpieces and ostentatiously spare direction by Mak — with much emphasis on primitive lighting sources like exposed lightbulbs, traffic lights, police flares and market stall lanterns — Long Arm of the Law has a nastiness and intensity that clearly signals that there is more going on here than just gangster gunplay. The film's toughness, desperation and dead-end nihilism have been interpreted as symptomatic of the "handover syndrome" preceding Hong Kong's return to the Mainland in 1997, while the apocalyptic ending takes place in Kowloon Walled City, which, as critic Li Cheuk-to notes, is a symbolic site of Chinese resistance to British rule.